The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist by Richard Feynman

Summary: A scientist riffs on religious, political and social issues of the day, and how science can help.

I am interested in physics.  I don’t really understand it and every time I read an actual book on physics, I know that I miss far more than I get.  But I continue to be intrigued, not just about the science itself, but by many of the characters that are behind the science.

I have been meaning to read something by Richard Feynman for a while but never got around to it.  What pushed me to start was watching a made for TV movie about the investigation into the 1986 Challenger accident that I watched over Christmas break.  Feynman was portrayed as the savior of the investigation and the one that actually moved the commission to actually investigate and not get stuck on politics.  I know it is a fictional portrayal, but it reignited my interest in Feynman.

The Meaning of it All is the book form of a series of three lectures given in 1963, but not published until after his death in 1988.  These are not re-edited, but rather transcribed from the lectures directly.

What I think it useful about these lectures (or the book) is that it is a record of an explicitly atheist scientist trying to talk broadly to a wide audience about science.  Feynman was not trying to debate religion or those that were against science, but trying to explain science, and its limits, to people that are skeptical.

The result, if you can listen past some of Feynman’s own biases, is a clear worldview that values tangible measurement and evaluation as the highest value.  The first lecture explains the nature of science and why uncertainty and doubt is essential.  This would be a great lecture for Christians that are creationists or skeptical of science to listen closely to to try and understand from a scientist’s perspective what is often misunderstood about science by the average non-scientist.

The second lecture explores how science, religion and politics overlap and influence one another.  Much of this lecture explores value systems and how in a pluralistic world you can used science and investigation to bridge different value systems.  This second lecture also talks about the importance of freedom (and against the Soviet Union for interjecting values on science.)

The third lecture is the most rant-like of the three.  It is Feynman’s complaint about modern society and how it is unscientific.  The third lecture is all over the place with lots of anecdotes and loosely connected examples of the way that society does not pay enough attention to science.  Essentially what he is asking for here is for society (and government) to be more technocratic.  I think he is both right and limited.  I think we should use more evidence based research.  But at the same time, it is simply not possible to hold social science research to his very high level of scientific methodology.  People are not easy to research and they do not always act rationally.

If I had not been listening to this around the time of the Ham and Nye origins debate, I might not have been thinking about it in this way, but it seems to me, there would be much more progress if Christians attempted to actually understand and listen instead of publicly debate.  No one’s mind was changed by that debate (on either side).  But had the same amount of time been devoted to listening there might be much more long term benefit.

In the end, I thought this was a good, but not great book.  I want to read more from Feynman, but the weakness of a lecture transcribed into book form (and then listened to as an audiobook) keep me from strongly recommending the book.  But if you run across a cheap copy or see it at the library, it is worth exploring.

The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist by Richard Feynman Purchase Links: PaperbackKindle Audiobook

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